First Published: The Call, Vol. 4, No. 7, April 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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For six months, from August ’75 to January ’76, workers at Capitol Packaging Company were on strike for a wage increase, improved benefits, and retroactive pay to cover the strike period. While their final contract offer fell short of the 25 cents increase demanded and included three instead of six months retroactive pay, the majority of workers viewed the strike as a victory. They had won only some of their demands, but, in the course of the strike, they had built rank and file organization, strong leadership, and unity among the workers of different nationalities.
Almost from the beginning, communists from the October League were active in this strike. We have summed up our work as communists in the Capitol strike for The Call because it is, on the whole, a good example of how communists must bring their ideas and aims to the masses of workers. In the course of the strike, we brought communist ideas and influence to large numbers of workers, many of whom are now engaged in the fight to win control of their union away from the bureaucrats who run it. Out of the Capitol struggle, strikers also emerged as members and leaders of the National Fight-Back Organization, thus bringing the lessons they had learned to the attention of thousands of workers across the country.
In the summary that follows we point out the main strengths and weaknesses in our work and the lessons we learned in the course of the struggle.
Capitol Packaging is a small plant in the Chicago suburbs. There are thousands like it in cities around the country. Militant and spontaneous struggles like the 6-month long Capitol strike have occurred in many such factories as well as in larger industrial plants. But the Capitol fight was more than just a strike. It became a training ground and a school of struggle for all the workers there and especially for a number of strike leaders.
Due to the active participation of communists from the October League, a number of leading workers were able to learn in the course of the strike that they must fight not only for economic demands in their particular factory but also to abolish the entire system of wage slavery. “We cannot make it alone as working people,” one shop steward told over 400 strikers and supporters at a family night strike fund raiser. “We’ve got to combine and fight against this capitalist system.”
An important turning point in winning some of these workers to the cause of revolution was the struggle to oppose the labor officials in the local union and to break with them consciously as traitors to the working class. We had to show why unions can and must be won to fight for the complete emancipation of the working class, and, to do this, we had to expose how the present reactionary leadership has used the unions to further its own self interests and, as a result, the interests of the ruling class.
Many people had never seen the unions take up a consistent fight for the interests of all working people. In our work, we stressed that in the hands of revolutionary-minded workers and under communist leadership, the unions will be in the forefront of all the workers’ struggles – the fight for decent health care and housing, the fight against racism and the segregationist movement, and also the fight against U.S. aggression abroad and imperialist war preparations, in this way, many workers could see how the unions would unite their membership and draw them into revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system.
When the workers at Capitol went out on strike, they were not learning for the first time that their union leadership was rotten. Still fresh in their minds was the sell-out contract forced on them two years earlier by the heads of OCAW Local 7507.
Those workers who still had faith in the union leadership had their eyes opened very shortly after the strike began. The vice president of the local, a Black worker and the only official out on the line, got run down and killed by a scab. The union bureaucrats refused to fight to vindicate his death and actively opposed efforts by the workers to mount broader and more militant demonstrations.
This incident turned the anger of the workers against the bureaucrats. As the strike went on, the union officials maneuvered more and more openly to end it. These hacks prevented marches and cut off meetings, while at the same time trying to slip a rotten contract past the rank and file. As support for the strike spread, the bureaucrats fought to isolate the workers from their supporters, especially from communists. “They succeeded in getting the courts to add a clause to an injunction that limited picketers and blocked non-strikers from the lines. This exposed not only the sell-out character of the union leaders but also the fact that the courts and legal system are nothing more than an extension of the capitalists’ power.
These experiences provided a good basis for Capitol workers to understand a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the labor aristocracy and its role in sabotaging the working class movement. In local fight-back meetings, on the lines and at home, we studied with strikers how the imperialist system gave rise to the labor aristocracy. With part of the huge superprofits gained through the exploitation of colonies and especially of third world nations and peoples, the imperialists buy off or bribe the very top strata of workers, a small handful of the most skilled workers and the heads of the unions who then serve as their agents within the working class. Because these bribes are linked to the plunder of the third world and to national oppression abroad and at home, these traitors in our midst give support to company policies of discrimination and promote chauvinism at every turn.
The labor bureaucrats are divorced from the masses of workers and receive large salaries and privileges. While they may from time to time fight for better wages or piecemeal reforms–usually only for the skilled workers–they do this to perpetuate the rotten capitalist system that enslaves the vast majority of workers. That is why, more than anything, they hate communists, who-stand for abolishing capitalism.
By working day-to-day on the lines and by studying Marxism-Leninism with workers during the strike, we helped to strengthen the strike and its leadership. These leaders became more able to unite the strikers and carry forward the struggle.
Communists did not just work with the leadership. Broad agitation was carried out regularly among all the workers. Through the daily use of The Call/El Clarin, a broader circle of workers thus became aware of and sympathetic to the aims of the communist movement.
The mobilization of support against the deportation of Angelo Claudio was a clear example of how communists contributed to the struggle, strengthening the unity of the working class. When Claudio was arrested and threatened with deportation, an immediate struggle developed to unite workers of all nationalities to block that deportation. Had this not been done, already existing divisions between Latinos and other nationalities would have deepened, weakening the strike. While this point was clear to some strike leaders, we helped explain how imperialist exploitation of third world nations forces workers to migrate to the U.S. in search of jobs. We were able to show how the capitalists get their huge superprofits from this plunder and use them to buy off the labor bureaucrats. Because the bureaucrats profit from this plunder, they end up leading some of the most vicious attacks against foreign-born workers and are among the main promoters of the myth that the foreign-born cause unemployment. It became clear to most workers why we could never rely on the union officials alone to stop, Claudio’s deportation.
Examples such (as Claudio’s case bring out the importance of taking communist ideas boldly to the masses of workers. This is one crucial lesson we in the October League learned during the strike. At the beginning stages of the strike, there was a tendency to put forward only a militant trade unionist face, fighting hard for a victory in the strike, but failing to educate the workers about the character of the capitalist system and the need for socialism. But in the course of struggle, we found that only by bringing communist ideas to all workers, studying Marxism-Leninism with the more advanced leaders and carrying out political struggle on many questions beyond the immediate issues of the strike could we link this local battle to the overall class struggle. Discussions hit on the world situation, the danger of war and the two superpowers, the degeneration of the old “Communist” Party and the need for a new one and the differences between genuine and sham communists.
While we sold The Call from the very beginning, at first we did not involve workers in studying, writing and distributing it. Some comrades felt the workers would only be interested in the articles on Capitol, but this view was defeated in practice. Using The Call with strikers became a powerful weapon to defeat the narrow trade unionism that existed in our own ranks.
As we corrected our mistakes and became more bold in our agitation, more workers grew to see their strike as a part of a much broader political struggle of the entire working class. “People started reading and learning more about struggles even in other countries they never knew about,” wrote strike leaders in a sum-up for the February Call. “It made us stop and see that the working people are struggling all over.”
Working in a bold but not a sectarian way, October League members achieved an important advance in spreading the influence of communism among workers. Strike leaders in their sum-up pointed out some of these gains. “We’ve learned a lot of (these lessons) by communists coming out to our strike and helping us. They helped us to see how this system is used against us. They helped us to learn how to organize and how to unite the people.”
Many tasks still lie ahead at Capitol. The struggle to turn the union into a fighting organization must be spread through the local and the entire union. To accomplish this, the influence and leadership of communists must also be strengthened. Most importantly, we must consolidate further the more advanced workers around the science of revolution, Marxism-Leninism, and the need for a new revolutionary party.
In the present period of bringing a new Marxist-Leninist party into existence, we must strengthen the base for this party among the workers themselves. The advanced workers who came forward in the leadership of the Capitol strike are exactly the kind of cadres needed by the new party-workers won to the science of revolution on the basis of their own experiences, tied closely to hundreds of other workers in the plant, and respected for their dedication in the fight against all oppression.